It was mid-summer’s day and I was 49. It was one of your national charity walking affairs. We’ll organise it all and equip you, but you need to let us have something for the trouble and you must guarantee a minimum sponsorship. Was it for cystic fibrosis? About three thousand will be doing it, and we’ll pick you up from a point nearest to your local motorway, which for me was the hotel at Ainley Top – the one that keeps changing its name. After our wedding reception (1972), about twelve of us piled up here and had a hell of a night in The Monk’s Cave. I bought the first round – not a good start, I was one short; I’d forgotten the bride’s. We danced to the music of the sixties and early seventies, and there was a special wedding twirl to Labi Siffre’s ‘It must be love’. Then, when nightclub shut we did the rounds of our bedrooms on room service until the complaints stopped. Twenty four years later, we still call it The Saxon Hotel. The child bride dropped me here at 6 am. and I joined the Huddersfield contingent. We picked up another group in Oldham before pressing on to N. Wales.
I’d done the training and was fitter than at any other time of my mid life. The final work out had been with Steve Gillis over Marsden Moor. We got talking about the local evening paper for some reason. Probably because it was their advert for the three peaks event that’d first got me interested, ‘We had the The Examiner delivered every night and The Express on Sundays. Mum and dad read them from cover to cover and then fell asleep. Everyday, the sports section finished up in one chair and features in the other. I could never make head nor tail of it; made me cross.’
‘You miss it,’ was Steve’s simple reply. Well yes, you do.
Sponsorship is always hard, once you’ve persuaded relatives and friends to overcome their charity fatigue. My current work had taken me away from the choir so I thought I’d pop down The Jacob’s Well and see what they were up to, they might help. And they did. Brett Mellor, bless him, actually did it for me, ‘Here sign this, it’s for Dave.’ ‘Garry, sign here.’ ‘Put your monica on this, Ray,’ and so on. They wouldn’t have known what they were doing. I was soon over my minimum amount – mostly paid up front.
The route up Snowdon followed the narrow gauge railway. There was unremitting sunshine and beautiful views. I couldn’t work out why a lot of the walkers were going slow and with so many around at once it was awkward to overtake. I didn’t dally at the summit. After a drink I hurried back down and got a quick wash and change, catching one of the first buses up to Scafell. There was one seat left, next to a gorgeous woman in her late forties; long blonde hair, attractive face and great body and designer walking gear. You take it all in in an instant. Why would no one sit with her? Was her beauty intimidating? Unless she was the only one on the bus on her own, apart from me. She got the short straw.
‘Hi, I’m Dave.’
‘How did you get on with Snowdon?’
‘OK. We do that sort of thing regularly in our walking club. I go off somewhere with my husband every week.’ She has an Oldham twang and I remember a man standing alone waving at the pick up point. She must’ve flown up Snowdon.
The airline meals arrive and the chat meanders around families and walking. Two lads sitting across the aisle join in. In the toilets at the bottom of Snowdon I’d inspected my feet and the soles looked fine, but there was a painful area on one of my toes which I’d ignored. It was becoming rather painful, rubbing against a dry sock so I had another look. It was a burst blister – an angry sore and skin tag. The elastoplast I’m carrying won’t be any good. Why didn’t I pack tape? A blister like this is enough to put a stop to the whole trip. I need tape, stupid not to think ahead. But that’s me. Hang on, my luck must be changing, one of the lads has just what I need.
‘I don’t suppose I could cadge a bit of tape?’
I’m mightily relieved, flooding with pleasure. I could’ve even smiled.
‘Have you done Scafell? I ask one of the lads.
‘No. We’re not walkers really. Have you?’
‘Yes, about three months ago, just to see what it was like. It’s straight up for a while, then plateaus out and the final bit is up again over big boulders. I’m not sure what it will be like in the dark.’
I actually had a mild fear of doing it in the dark. Eric and I had done it in mist and got lost and separated. It was only a fluke glimpse through the low cloud that got us back in touch. My mistake, my map reading; why is the important bit always on a crease in the paper? Old cheap map, it’s time you got a proper one. We’d been too pleased to connect to get upset. But we’d learned the lesson. Don’t do these things alone. By the time we were on the corridor it was clear blue sky. Superb views of Great Gable are not a bad finish.
On this occasion, we arrived at Seatoller around seven, seven-thirty in the evening. On the bus, we’d loosely agreed to walk together, and that’s how it started. Sandra and I had a different walking rhythm to the two lads and what with the other hundred or so walkers milling about, staying with them wasn’t going to work without a lot of stop, start and wait.
Sandra asked, ‘Could you hold this for me?’
Then it was, ‘Hang on while I change,’ and the rest. It’s flattering when an attractive woman bothers to make some sort of contact, though she hadn’t had much choice. But I was now feeling distinctly ugly and angry and taken advantage of. I lost myself grumpily in the melee.
It was a bit of a procession on the lower slopes, but come the the single file track I’d managed to get some space to myself and, at Esk Hause, I was more or less alone. The safety helicopter had landed here, a huge blackbird framed by the bright orange and deep dark blue of the still sunset. The silence was broken by one of the mountain guides,
‘You’re making good time, there’s not many ahead. Well done.’
There were a dozen or so resting and eating at the summit. Shoot, the hot water’s cold. What is the matter with this flask? Tepid soup and a mars bar then. No reason to hang about. We weren’t using the corridor tonight, so it was back down the way we’d come up. Best get my headlight going. Looks like a miner’s lamp, a torch really, strapped to the forehead. How does it work? Stupid prat, why haven’t you tried it out? I can’t get it round my head so I hold it in my hand and all’s well until the single file track. The thing goes out; bulb or battery? I don’t know, what a stupid question. There’s three thousand people on the way up who take an instant dislike to me, as one by one I break their rhythm. They could do without me, but I need them. It’s their lamps that show me the way. And then someone intervened, a girl, young I think,
‘You having problems?’
She mended it – just like that; changed the bulb. I walked behind her for a while, and then she was gone. She just melted away. Maybe she went on ahead, lost in the crowd coming up? She must have been super fit, for sure. Did I thank her enough? Or had I been a grouch for needing help? Had she really existed? It was an angelic moment.
Still they were coming up past Seathwaite and its two o’clock in the morning. Wonder what the locals think. It’s only once a year I suppose. By the time I’d reached the road, the crowd had gone and I turned to see where they all were. A rare sight, a sight to make your hair stand on end. A thin fragile line of three thousand lights was bobbing and weaving up the fell. Fleetingly, I hoped someone’d warned air traffic control. They won’t want a Boeing 747 coming into land.
I went through the checkpoint alone. A woman in an army camouflage tent lit by blue computer glow, ticked me off and entered me onto her spreadsheet,
‘Good time, well done.’
There were only a handful of walkers waiting for coaches at Seatoller and we all boarded the first one to arrive. So why was it the last to leave? We sat waiting for ages. It was hard to sleep; big men in small spaces, trying not to touch. I talked at the guy sat next to me. He was polite in short bursts of single words. At least I could put a sentence together. The night was short and the non-sleepers caught the early scenery around Loch Lomond. No people, but busy anyway with campsites and hotels and marinas and boats.
Ben Nevis was more than quite a trial; it was a ball-acher. Runners were coming off the hill as we started, around ten o’clock. The sun was about to burn off the morning mist. Since most people do Ben Nevis first, these guys had just begun, and they were serious time-keepers. Getting safely up and down was our target, but with good transport, they would complete them all within 24 hours.
I was okay to the zig-zag, and then it all went pear-shaped. Despite doing all the right things – drinking plenty, no alcohol and eating correctly, my energy went.
My daysack was old and heavy and chafing and a pain in the arse. Why hadn’t I replaced the bloody thing? I had to let people go past. I had tostop and rest regularly. I can’t do this. I even got a polite enquiry from one of the guides stationed at the top of the zig-zag. Then the helicopter buzzed around and landed to pick up a casualty. There was snow up here, so I must be near the top. I dumped the sack. Would anybody mind? Was it against the rules? Who gives a toss. The welcome site of the summit cairn. Knickers, I need a break. A mars bar.
Then came my next problem. I needed a crap, bad. I thought I’d been careful. I got my sack on and set off back down. Then pain – sharp piercing stabs on the balls of my feet. That trip down was a blur, a mixture of scanning for walls and quiet places – there weren’t any – and keeping going a regular mind-numbing routine of walking and mantra recitation, ‘rhythm relax rhythm relax’. I preyed my sphincter wouldn’t let me down. The wall I needed appeared at the very bottom. Over I went, like a mountain goat. No loo roll and no digging tool, tough. Well you manage somehow don’t you? New arrivals gave me the once over. They all nodded in agreement,
‘It’s the size of his pack,’ explained my appearance.
I took a coach to the leisure centre in Fort William as England were playing their first game in Euro 96. There, I headed for the facilities. I’d made up a lot of lost time coming off Ben Nevis so the showers were still relatively dry and tidy. Much later, when I needed the loo, they’d turned into a battle zone casualty station. England won, on penalties? I went into Fort William for a few well-earned beers. No one was at home to take my phone-call. The meal queues wound round and round the leisure centre, but it was something to do rather than have a skinful of ale. The coaches set off back at one o’clock in the morning. I kept waking and seeing mist over bens and lochs. Sandra had a new and enthusiastic boyfriend. I hadn’t met anyone, so no shared adversity and no goodbyes. I ached alone.
The child bride met me at The Saxon, and Chris had painted a welcome-home banner, what a star. They’d got my message.
The times are irrelevant, but just for the record: Snowdon – 3 hrs 27 mins; Scafell – 4 hrs 48 mins; Ben Nevis – 5 hrs 23 mins; Total – 13 hrs 38 mins. Could I have travelled between them in under ten and a half hours? Probably.
It was physically the hardest thing I’d ever done. I couldn’t move with comfort for weeks. The Duke of Leeds in Newmill was the next choir venue. The charity had done very well, and I was grateful. They always clap, even after a good practice, and they did again. It felt pretty genuine.